Théodore Géricault was a French romantic fine art painter who lived a sadly short life from September 26 1791 to January 26 1824. He was born to a middle class family in the city of Rouen about 130kms north east of Paris.
Spending much of his childhood in Rouen, he followed his father to Paris in order to complete his studies with Pierre-Narcisse Guérin. His early influence was from the painter Sir Peter Paul Rubens, but he also heavily studied the works of Michelangelo when he spent a couple of years in Florence and Rome between 1816 and 1817.
A passionate horse lover, in 1812 he had already completed his first major work, ‘Officier de chasseurs à cheval de la garde impériale chargeant’ (The Charging Chasseur). This picture won him gold prize at the famous ‘Salon’ in Paris. It now hangs in the Louvre, Paris.
In 1819, he produced his masterpiece, ‘Le Radeau de la Méduse’ (The Raft of Medusa), an enormous oil on canvas painting that shows the horror of the aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse. While a spectacular piece, at the time it was greeted with much skepticism and disdain due to the politics at the time. This piece, along with The Charging Chasseur shall be discussed in greater detail later in this essay.
With the disappointment of the reception of The Raft of Medusa, Géricault spent a couple of years in England where he was able to produce lithographs, water colors and oils of jockeys and of course, his favorite subject, horses. The Derby at Epsom (1821) was another famous work of his and also hangs in the Louvre today.
On returning to France he befriended Etienne Georget, a pioneer of psychiatric studies. This inspired him to paint a series of paintings of insane people.
At the age of 33, he succumbed to a tuberculosis infection and passed away after suffering a long illness.
His tomb can be found in Pére Lachaise cemetery on the west side of Paris amongst many other famous peoples such as Chopin, Rossini, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, Moliére and Bizet to name a few. His tomb is very prominent with a bronze statue of him on top and a reproduction of The Raft of Medusa that was created by the sculptor Antione Etex.
I shall now be considering three of Géricault’s best known works, The Charging Chasseur; Evening: Landscape with an Aqueduct and The Raft of Medusa. For each, I shall attempt to provide a brief history of what was happening around at the time and how it relates or affects the piece, and then lead into a formal analysis of it.
The Charging Chasseur
This piece can be seen on fig 3 and it currently hangs in the Louvre museum in Paris. It measures 11’ 5” x 8’ 9” and is oil on canvas. It was completed in 1812.
The Charging Chasseur was first exhibited at the Salon, Paris depicting a Napoleonic cavalry officer on his rearing horse. At the time, Napoleon was an undefeated general in his wars across Europe. This status would change by the end of the year, as a massive defeat in Russia left his forces greatly diminished. The painting however, shows a proud and powerful officer upon his steed before Napoleon’s crushing defeat.
Painted in the style of Peter Paul Rubens, Géricault gives us a stark piece and shows his love of horses. It is a representational piece and naturalistic, and because of this, most shapes appearing are organic.
Immediately, the eye is drawn to the central figure of the officer, and we follow his gaze via an imaginary line to the bottom left of the picture to the soldier he has just slain. The rearing of the horse also follows this same line, giving an almost symmetrical balance across this diagonal plane of the painting.
The piece is very well lit, we can clearly see the expression of the officer and it is also quite a colorful piece, certainly in comparison to some of his other works. The strong blue of his uniform, the bright red of his sashes and belt brings him forward from the neutral beige background. On the right of the painting, we see the light of fire, which flows over the top of the painting, turning into thick black smoke, providing a frame.
Amongst the background, we can also see debris, more fighting in the distance and this further enhances the content of the painting and what we are seeing and provides us with the feeling of time and motion.
Evening: Landscape with an Aqueduct
This piece can be seen on fig 4 and it currently hangs in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It measures 8’ 2” x 7’ 2” and is oil on canvas. It was completed in 1818.
This painting was supposed to have been one of a series of four paintings depicting different times of the day. Only three were completed, Morning, Noon and this one, Evening. The Metropolitan Museum of Art tells us that “Gericault painted these landscapes at a moment of personal turmoil: his uncle's second wife was about to give birth to a child whom Gericault had fathered” and uses this to suggest why a fourth was not completed.
We can see a slight shift in style from The Charging Chasseur, Géricault has developed his technique under the influence of Michelangelo’s work. This piece exhibits very precise work, almost photographic, making it both naturalistic and representational. Our eye is drawn from the bottom right of the picture, past the two figures, up along the river until it reaches the aqueduct. From there, the eye is drawn to the right to take us into the small hamlet and beyond.
Much of the foreground is in shadow with the sun setting in the bottom left. His use of value here is superb and makes the painting dark, yet inviting through the fading sunlight which strikes a thin edge of the cliff on the left hand side, highlighting a tree on the bottom right after passing under the aqueduct. The colors used are very neutral and thus low in intensity, a lot of beige and dull greens, but this generates a lot of warmth.
The composition is very balanced, but not quite symmetrical. Interestingly, I do not believe it uses the rule of thirds, as the horizon line, the aqueduct is exactly in the centre of the piece.
We are looking at the piece from slightly above the aqueduct and also, we have a two point perspective in looking at the scene.
The Raft of Medusa
This piece can be seen on fig 5.1 and it currently hangs in the Louvre museum in Paris. It measures 16’1” x 23’ 6” and is oil on canvas. It was completed in 1819.
The Raft of Medusa caused great controversy when it originally went up for display in the Salon in Paris in 1819. The Medusa was an ill piloted ship that had run aground and its survivors left to survive on a small makeshift raft.
It is a protest piece. H.W. & A.F. Janson’s History of Art tells us “Géricault painted his most ambitious work, The Raft of Medusa, in response to a political scandal of epic proportions. The Medusa, a government vessel, had foundered off the West African coast with hundreds of men on board.” Britannica follows this on by stating “The shipwreck had scandalous political implications at home—the incompetent captain, who had gained the position because of connections to the Bourbon Restoration government, fought to save himself and senior officers while leaving the lower ranks to die—and so Géricault’s picture of the raft and its inhabitants was greeted with hostility by the government.”
Interestingly, Géricault took his work to England the following year where it was received with great enthusiasm and pleasure. Perhaps this had to do with the great rivalry that existed between the two nations at the time, not long after the English had finally defeated Napoleon.
The painting is clearly a representational piece, as well as being naturalistic. The characters can easily be recognized and the level of detail is astonishing. It is an excellent example of a fine art, and critics even described it as being too realistic. It owes much in style to the Greek and Roman inspired model of art that was so prevalent at the time.
It uses imaginary lines that take the viewers eye from bottom left of the painting and leads it through the main body towards where the group on the top right of the raft are looking, into the distance to their salvation – a ship.
The subject matter is reflected by the darkness of the painting itself. Because it is very large too, it does bring about an overwhelming emotional feeling of oppression and of imminent death and decay. The use of shadows and darkness within the painting really emphasizes this feeling and the analogous colors of browns, yellows and beiges with splashes of red here and there only adds to the depressing subject matter.
Carlo L. Ragghianti in his book, Great Museums of the World suggests that “the whole composition has a severe pyramidal structure that was roundly denounced by many contemporaries.” The first would include the group of men from the bottom left laying in their death and disease and includes the sail. The second can be drawn over the group of men at the top right looking out to sea and perhaps seeing their salvation.
There have been satirical uses of this painting over the years, The Pogues used this painting for the cover of their album ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’, and had pasted members of the band’s heads over the originals.
It is perhaps fitting to conclude with a tribute to Géricault by some of his fellow Frenchmen some 143 years into the future. Goscinny and Uderzo, the creators of the Asterix the Gaul series satirized the Raft of Medusa in their comic book, Asterix the Legionary.
Within the adventures of this Gaulic comic hero, Asterix would from time to time come into contact with a group of pirates, and he would always win and the pirate ship always destroyed.
In this particular scene, we see the pirates on the same raft, waving goodbye to their ship and generally looking very miffed. To further enhance the joke, we see one of the pirates exclaim, “We’ve been framed, by Jericho”, which is both a send off and I imagine also a tribute to Géricault himself.
Asterix is as much a French treasure as Géricault is, and it is likely that Géricault would be happy in his grave knowing that his fellow citizens still remember him fondly.